THE MT INTERVIEW: Derek Simpson

THE MT INTERVIEW: Derek Simpson - The new hard-left head of Amicus is girding his loins to take the hitherto Blair-friendly union - Britain's second-biggest - into battle. No more cosy deals with Government or bosses, no truck with the euro, no PFI, and r

by ANDREW DAVIDSON
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The new hard-left head of Amicus is girding his loins to take the hitherto Blair-friendly union - Britain's second-biggest - into battle. No more cosy deals with Government or bosses, no truck with the euro, no PFI, and reform of employee laws. A dinosaur or what?

The first time we agree to meet, Derek Simpson, general secretary elect of Amicus and long-time workers' representative, doesn't turn up. Shame, he says later, foul-up with the diary. That left me waiting for him in the lobby of his West End hotel at 10am, shouting down the phone at his office in Sheffield while he was waltzing off to a union meeting in Bromley.

The next day, same place, similar time, I am 30 minutes late. He can't complain, can he? Well, not about me, but he's had it with the swish hotel. He bustles up, thick-set, grey suit, blue shirt, toning tie, looking like a burly bookie in a fug of tobacco and after-shave. Sorry, this is crap, he says in his gravelly Yorkshire brogue, they'd been trying to page him and he'd been eating breakfast and they're so hopeless, many of the staff don't seem to speak English, all the guests are tourists, despite the glossy facade no-one would ever return twice (except those of us forced to). He can't remember who recommended him the place. Why are the hotels down here all so expensive and so terrible?

Welcome to London, Mr Simpson. The man who is shortly to take over Britain's second-largest union, who has knocked Sir Ken Jackson, one of of Tony Blair's most loyal allies, off his cushioned perch and who promises a new, more militant form of union leadership, smiles gruffly and flashes grey eyes that give little away.

More amenable is his partner Freda Knight, who emerges suddenly from behind him, short, blonde, good-looking in shirt and skirt, an instantly engaging bundle of chat. While Simpson goes off to make a phone call, she tells me how they've spent all their lives in Sheffield, now they have to find a home in London, no-one warned them about the prices, the union has a new head office opening in Covent Garden (Covent Garden!), and she's got her animals to look after, she needs space, where should she be looking?

Simpson returns and stands listening. Fred - as he affectionately calls her - is his first wife with whom he's now back together after splitting from his second. They have three children each by separate marriages but, oh, let's leave the complications till later. Simpson out-talks Knight only in the field of politics where, like many ex-Communist Party members, he has a lot to say and the experience of a thousand arguments to sharpen his dialectic skills.

And you can bet you'll be hearing him a lot from now on. The rumblings of discontent with the current Government are rolling through the union movement. Simpson's toppling of Jackson in a bitterly contested and controversial election to head Amicus AEEU, the combined electricians' and engineers' union, is just one of many indicators that a new mood of militancy has taken hold. The effects are rippling through to British business. Simpson has promised that Amicus, once the most business-friendly of unions, is to become decidedly more hostile. First off, he pledges, there will be no more 'sweetheart deals' with employers, with their promise of no strikes in return for exclusive worker representation.

'No strikes?' he says to me incredulously. 'It's like us opening a pub and then refusing to sell beer!' How, he asks, can a union operate like that? He also wants to withdraw Amicus's support for entry into the eurozone, increase the minimum wage, change employment laws, cut out the cosy relations with Government, stop PFI - heck, he wants to renationalise just about everything.

Is he a dinosaur or what? No, just a socialist who believes Tony Blair's Labour has deserted its socialist principles. Likewise his union. He took on Jackson - resigning his pounds 30,000-a-year job as regional convenor to do so - because he felt Amicus no longer represented the views of its members and was being run undemocratically as a personal fiefdom by its leader. He may have been right too, if the irregularities uncovered during this summer's leadership election were indicative of the union's priorities. The first count gave Jackson an 800-vote majority, followed by a challenge, recounts, votes found in the wrong pile, allegations of rigging by Simpson's opponents. By the end of July, Jackson conceded defeat, Simpson was declared the winner (by just 406 votes) and the man tagged dismissively by the media as a 'relatively unknown left-wing union official' (The Times) was set to become a national figure.

He moves into the top slot next month, Jackson leaving with a controversially large payoff, and everyone expects a major shift in style. There is certainly no love lost between him and Jackson, as can be judged by the splenetic asides Simpson makes about his predecessor 'swanning and hobnobbing' down the corridors of power. But isn't that what leaders of big unions have to do, representing their members' interests? Simpson's lip curls.

'I don't think that because Jackson was regularly round at Number 10 that meant he was regularly representing the interests of our members.

The fact that he is Sir Ken Jackson and likely to be Lord Ken Jackson, well, he is more likely to have been representing his own bleeding interests than ours, isn't he?'

So, no punches pulled. Knight wanders off while Simpson and I talk over the muzak in the hotel's basement lounge. He puts two mobile phones down in front of him and perches on the edge of a sofa, jacket open, shirt buttons pulled tight over a beer-drinkers' tum. At 57, he still looks like he could handle hard manual work, despite the fact that he has been, as he admits, a union paper-pusher for three decades now. He is also tightly rooted in the Sheffield industrial scene, where he has worked all his life and from where nearly all his reference points are made. It makes you wonder just how emotionally dislocating his shift to London might be.

But he is a terrific communicator, taking on any question, talking through the issues slowly and convincingly with a plain, nowt-fancy charm. And like many political idealogues, he has an answer for everything, even questions about his own psychology.

He grew up an only child with an absent dad, in the tough Park district near Sheffield's city centre. 'Some people make something of the fact I was brought up by a single parent,' he says, 'I never knew my father, he disappeared before I could remember. And I can tell you, being brought up by a single parent in the early 1950s... well, single mums weren't all that popular and rarely could earn anything like a decent wage. That's my childhood,' he sums up. 'I just wanted a lot of things other kids had.'

Did that make him envious? No, he says firmly, it just gave him 'a natural affinity' with the underdog. 'I suppose I empathise with people who are in need, I know what it feels like.' He was always a bit behind others at school, youngest in his year-group, struggling to catch up, but he did develop the skill of arguing his own corner. Later, when he'd decided that much of the world was populated with bluffers who just pretended to know everything but didn't and he'd studied his way through an Open University degree in maths and computer studies to prove it, that skill was to be the engine behind his rise to prominence. That, and the resilience he inherited from his mum, who went on to become the country's first female projectionist at the local cinema, the Norfolk Picture Palace.

Anyway, he left school at 15, took an apprenticeship at a machine tool manufacturer - in those days employment was booming in Sheffield, everyone who left his tech school was guaranteed a job. He joined the engineering union, was impressed with the work of the shop stewards. When he left to join another firm at 21, the union organisers there noted what he'd picked up and offered him a role. 'I could make contributions that probably identified myself as a gobby little sod,' he chuckles, 'but nevertheless they recognised I was raising valid issues. The shop steward I was working for actually suggested I take his place.' Sarcastically? No, says Simpson, frowning. 'It was not a job people queued up for.'

And his involvement just grew. He has been a union member for 42 years now, he says, half of them as a full-time union organiser and at least another 10 years as a full-time company convenor.

Is he a good organiser? 'I've never been involved in sitting down and planning and plotting things, setting tasks and goals.'

Isn't that what the leader of a union does? 'I don't know,' he grins, 'I've never been boss of a union, have I? And according to the pundits, anyway, I can't run a union, as I have no idea how to do it!'

Isn't that what you just admitted? 'No, I told you I had no experience but I didn't concede that I didn't know how to do it, did I?'

Simpson, you can tell, loves this kind of arguing, he has clearly honed his working life on it, and beneath the belligerent Yorkshireman front, he does it with considerable dry wit. Little wonder he surprised many in the Amicus election.

He argues there is no degree of calculation about the way he has gone about his union career, nor will he concede that he was ambitious for the top job. He simply thought Jackson had to be challenged, and as he talked to others, support just grew. He is, however, a keen chess player - used to play for his works teams - so I am not sure if I'm buying the no-calculation bit.

'No,' he says picking up on my scepticism, 'all chess playing indicates is a character trait: if I see something that needs a solution I try to get to it. And in general, I hate games of chance and love games of logic. A psychologist would say that coming from my background where I've not got the best deal in the deck, you're instinctively not going to want to rely on luck.'

So he never bets? 'Yeah, I do' - he met Freda down the dog-track, where she was a kennel maid and he had a second job parading the dogs and setting the traps - 'but only if I can get the whole form book and pretend I can work it out.'

Isn't that a degree of calculation? No. Then in the next breath he tells me he doesn't support either of the Sheffield football teams because he learnt early on that it doesn't win you votes. 'Can I suggest,' he says, leaning towards me with his eyebrows arched, 'that if you want to be an elected official in Sheffield and you don't want every election to be a marginal, it's difficult to support one or other.' And he laughs, loudly.

Others say what you see is what you get, and that, unlike other union leaders, who swiftly get softened by the good life at the top, Simpson won't change. As one friend puts it: 'He will definitely not be in anyone's pocket. If anything, Blair will be in his before long.'

Yet he has changed already, chucking in his Communist Party membership and joining the Labour party 10 years ago. What are we to make of that? Simple, he says, he used to be a communist because they got things done in Sheffield. 'All the best-organised firms were organised around shop stewards who were members of the CP; they had the best rates of pay, the safest working practices, the best conditions - and where they hadn't got them they had the best idea of how to get them.'

So why did he leave? Surely not because of the expediency of his ambition? 'Nah, I've been in a minority group all my life. I've no fear of being in something when it's unpopular. I just think the CP lost its industrial relevance. Its objectives were purely political and not relevant to the realities of everyday life.'

And Labour is? 'Well, I've got the same concerns about the Labour party as I have about the CP,' he says. 'It doesn't appear to be making incisive inroads into the problems of working people.'

So why join? 'Because the valid question then was, do you not have any political dimension as a trade unionist? And the answer was no. It's like in the old days when trade unionists realised they had to have a political arm and formed the Labour party... I guess I could have joined the extreme left, but they are about as bloody irrelevant as anyone else!'

Yet here he is, catapulted into the front line, not yet rubbed smooth by abrasion from London political and media types, and trotting out extreme left views that seem wilfully to ignore all the changes of the past 30 years. Tony Blair's beloved Third Way? 'Just emperor's new clothes,' he growls. 'Everyone goes along with it, but there is no third way, it's labour and capital and as many ways of conducting that relationship as you care to think up.'

But surely it's more complex now with changes in technology and the way people work, and smaller, more empowered workforces? 'No, that's like saying: is it music if it's just the kid on the corner with the guitar rather than a full orchestra?' Capital is about control and labour is about lack of control, and ideas like sweetheart deals are a con perpetrated by the owners of capital.

'I always got taught from my early days that management has the right to manage, and we have the right to defend our members where we feel they are unfairly treated. The whole idea that we are part of the process of management's right to manage seems to me based on a false premise, and if involving us means we sacrifice representing workers' interests, we're doing everyone a disservice.'

Employment laws? He wants instant parity with Europe. He told one newspaper earlier this year that if the thought of parity gave Tony Blair a headache, 'he's going to have a fucking migraine by the time we've finished'. Hi ho. Back to the 1970s? 'What's wrong with that?' he counters. 'Like when we had jobs and a better manufacturing base until they applied all their magic formulas and manufacturing declined like never before...'

I wonder if he's nostalgic for times past - he cites collecting old comics and annuals as his hobby, after all, and I'd bet he's got a sentimental streak a mile wide. But there's also a thread of sense to his arguments beyond straight political posturing; never doubt that this is a man who got elected - he's good at persuading.

If there are to be strikes, he says, it's only because workers have genuine grievances and want action. The strikes will be democratically supported through secret ballots. No-one will be able to accuse union leaders of behaving like dictators this time. And although he wants European employment laws, he doesn't want the euro. Why? Because it's capital, and that means loss of control to those in Brussels or Frankfurt, or wherever.

Hmm, almost in agreement with the Daily Telegraph. 'Well, it's not inconceivable,' he grins, 'that people on the right of the Tory party occasionally have some good ideas.'

Though they don't, I think, advocate renationalising the privatised industries. 'Well, which privatisations are successful?' coun- ters Simpson. 'Shall we talk about the railways, or British Airways, which is almost in collapse; and let's see what a mess they make of the Tube in London. And what about all those wonderful people who told us to put our money into PEPs and ISAs' - he punches his fist forward in mock celebration - 'Oh yeah, rock on, Tommy!'

Then he becomes serious again. 'The little print said you may lose your money and there are a lot of losers out there. The bullshitters convinced us with their lies about the benefits of the system, and people who that party represented are richer now than they were, everybody they kidded is poorer. Right?'

Simpson is moving up the gears now, promising how Amicus will expand once Jackson has gone, yet more unions will merge with them, maybe get rid of that terrible name - you can tell it's crap, he says, because you always have to explain what Amicus is. 'But,' he promises, 'we will be the largest union in the UK shortly.'

Won't that mean he has to work closely with Government? Nah, he says, and lays into Jackson's tight relations with Downing Street, deriding his knighthood. Simpson hates honours, thinks they are rarely deserved.

Even for working men's icons like Sir Bobby Charlton? 'Matter for Charlton, not me,' he sniffs, 'but the idea of getting a knighthood for kicking a ball seems pretty odd.'

By now Knight has rejoined us, sitting opposite, and I can see her through the corner of my eye making 'calm down' signals with her hands. She's right. Imagine what an unsympathetic tabloid would make of him laying into Sir Bobby Charlton? But Simpson doesn't care. It is as if, when you get him going, some machismo streak takes over and he can't resist whipping his ideology out and slapping it on the table. And then, back to terse.

Does he think coming south and becoming boss of the union will change him? 'No,' he says. How much will he earn? 'No idea,' he shrugs. Really? 'No, don't know.' Come on...

'Can I butt in?' says Knight, clearly tired of this male jousting. 'Never say never, but we have roots and we will stick to those roots. We've got friends and family, and they have said: 'Don't worry, we'll give you a bloody great clout with a stick if you get beyond your station.' And we need that, but Derek and I are soulmates on that. I can understand people get sucked into it, getting chauffeured around, nice meals, lovely hotels...'

Certainly no-one doubts Simpson's dedication, nor his passion. Knight confirms it. You don't split up your second marriage to re-form your first 20-odd years later without a certain bloody-minded determination. And what split them up originally? Married too young, says Simpson. 'I was so deeply involved in trade unionism and probably crap at marriage in the first place.'

'He has always been passionate about everything he does,' chips in Knight. 'If you cut off his arm you'd find UNION stamped all the way through it like a stick of rock.'

'And that didn't sit well with a young wife who wanted a family and the same as everyone else,'nods Simpson.

'And you were a nightmare to live with,' adds Knight.

'Thanks.' They both laugh. Yet my suspicion is that Simpson, even in Knight's protective custody, is going to get a battering from the media, and what's more, he's macho enough to encourage it. 'If I'm not upsetting them, then I'm not doing something right,' he grins, as he gets up to go. That could be naive, or it could be well forearmed. Who knows? Either way, he's going to have an interesting ride. My only home-buying tip is to get somewhere near King's Cross St Pancras and those trains north. I think he may miss his roots more than he realises next year.

< simpson="" in="" a="" minute="" 1944="" born="" 23="" december="" in="" sheffield.="" educated="" central="" technical="" school;="" ba="" from="" the="" open="" university.="" 1961="" starts="" apprenticeship="" at="" firth="" brown="" tools,="" where="" he="" joins="" the="" aeu.="" 1967="" joins="" balfour="" darwin="" as="" a="" machinist,="" later="" working="" in="" the="" toolroom;="" elected="" shop="" steward.="" 1978="" aeeu="" national="" committee="" delegate.="" 1981="" elected="" as="" union's="" sheffield="" district="" secretary.="" 1994="" elected="" regional="" officer="" on="" amalgamation="" of="" engineering="" and="" electricians'="" unions.="" 2002="" defeats="" moderate="" sir="" ken="" jackson="" in="" election="" for="" post="" of="" general="" secretary="" of="" amicus-aeeu.="">

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime